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Friday, March 12, 2010

Guest Blog ~ Steven James ~ The Paradox of Violence In Fiction

The Paradox of Violence in Fiction

By Steven James

Some people have asked if my novels, which contain violence, aren’t exacerbating the problem of violence in the world. If they’re not desensitizing people even more to violence and perhaps even inciting it as people imitate what I write about.

First of all, I agree that our world is desensitized to violence. I believe this happens when evil is muted and sanitized (TV shows where people get shot, fall over, there is no blood, no grief, no mourning), glamorized, or ignored. I think we become more sensitized to violence when it is portrayed with honesty.

So first, muting evil. Some books and television shows do so by diminishing the value of human life. A person will be killed and no one grieves. Cut to commercial. Come back and solve the crime. This is not real life. Death hurts because we are people of dignity and worth. Death matters because life matters. Unfortunately, this muting of violence often happens in books that are labeled “religious fiction.”

This also frequently happens in the news media. Think of a news program: “A suicide bomber killed 62 in Iraq.”

When you hear that do you weep? Do you mourn? Most people do not. Only when we see the screaming three-year-old children with shrapnel in their face, the desperate widows, the bodies in the street do we feel, do we truly recognize the impact of the violent, evil act.

Movies such as the Saw or Friday the 13th films glamorize violence. The most interesting person is the serial killer. This desensitizes people to violence. And since we tend to emulate those we admire, I believe movies or books that glamorize or celebrate violence draw people toward it. Whenever the antagonist is more intriguing, more empathetic than the protagonist, the author is running the risk that readers will care more for evil to be accomplished than for justice to be done.

In my books I want people to look honestly at what our world is like, both the good and the evil. The evil in my books is not senseless; people’s lives are treated as precious and I want my readers to hurt when an innocent life is taken. The only way to do that is to let them see it on the page and then reflect on its meaning.

I think that an effective way of dissuading someone from doing something is to make them see it as deeply disturbing. And the only way to make people disturbed by evil is to show it to them for what it really is. I like celebrating life by letting readers ache for what is right rather than cheer for what is wrong.

Steven James is the bestselling, award-winning author of four thrillers, including The Knight, which Suspense Magazine named one of the top ten books of 2009. Armed with a Master’s Degree in Storytelling, James is a popular conference speaker and has taught writing and storytelling throughout North America, as well as in India and South Africa.

Read reviews of Steven James novels HERE.


  1. Well said. And done very well in this series.

  2. I love what you do in your stories, Steven. Great blog on the subject.

    Of course, every person has different things they can handle. I despise the mix of sex and violence in some movies, for example. But I worked around so many foul-mouthed guys that language doesn't really bug me. I don't condone it, but I just hear it as the way some people talk (people who aren't trying to live by biblical standards).

    Thanks for giving us food for thought. I find that Ted Dekker's book rarely bug me, because they don't seem as real or researched--almost cartoonish, at times. Whereas your books are very believable in the telling, which makes them more chilling. Personally, I prefer that verisimilitude and the depth it provides to the story.

  3. My father's been a firechief for over forty-five years and is still haunted by what he's seen. I'm happy to see your main character wrestle with that, too. I'm still haunted by some of your victims, not your killers.

    When my son was young, we wrestled with this with video games. While some parents thought them OK to play as long as "the blood and gore" were turned off, I felt it was important to leave it on so death didn't lose it's affect. My son once told a friend "We're Christian, so when we play video games, we don't do sex or nudity and we can only kill people if we have a good reason and can face the blood." His words have stuck with me as I write my first novels, too.

  4. Thought provoking post. Made me think about the violent scenes I've written. I didn't ever think about them as simply being put there to amp up the storyline simply because violence spreads to affect other characters.

  5. The subject of violence in fiction can almost turn some normally quiet writers toward actual violence: It's a constant debate that has led me to share my work only rarely with the rest of my writers group.

    However, violence is very much a part of humanity's existence on this planet -- has been and will be -- and can be addressed in fiction in such a way that it is made both real and "handle-able". For instance, it is only when I was able to write about the violence and darkness I witnessed as a child that said violence and darkness no longer held sway over me.

    If done well and without glorification, fictional violence can (dare I say it?) be a good thing.


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